- The Problem of Distraction
Paul North's inquiry into the "problem of distraction" opens with the paradoxical observation that despite its ceaseless invocations in popular discourse and the apparent self-evidence of the concept, the meaning of the word distraction, and even its validity as a real phenomenon, has never been less clear. For this reason, North begins by distancing the common understanding of the word, rooted in its "marked" opposition with attention, from what he refers to as "primal distraction": a non-attentional form of distraction which is both irreducible to diversion, or attention to the lowest degree, and fundamentally problematic for the traditional ontological schema which binds it to the subject. As North asks, "How would distraction appear if it were released from its subordination to attention, to perception, to the subject?" (6). North's answer to this question entails a return to a problem which haunted Aristotle's metaphysics and was subsequently banished from Ancient Greek thought, namely the possibility of "not-always-thinking," to me aei noein, the periodic non-thought which interrupts cogitation. The challenge facing North's project is thus to "produce a genealogy of not-always-thinking" (9), which captures its periodic resurfacing in the wake of Aristotle without recourse to a reified "history of the history of thought," or what Gilles Deleuze called "images of thought." In dissociating the thought-act with its respective historical image, North provides an historically-informed account of "primal distraction" that is nevertheless "barely recognizable as history" (11), what he refers to as a Geistesabwesenheitsgeschichte, which dispenses with the temporal continuity of thought-images and, at an ontological level, the correspondence between thought and being.
In the prologue and across the book's five diverse chapters, North pinpoints the resurfacing of "not-always-thinking" first in seventeenth-century [End Page 685] France with the rise of French moralism, specifically in the works of Jean de La Bruyère and Blaise Pascal, and later in twentieth-century Germany, corresponding to the philosophical dominance of phenomenology and the significance it attributed to structures of thought and consciousness. The predominant figures of this constellation include Franz Kafka in fiction, Martin Heidegger in philosophy, and Walter Benjamin in cultural criticism, each of whom made distraction (Zerstreuung) central to their writing. What sets the work of these figures apart for North is that it concerns itself with "deformation, disintegration, and ceasing to be" (15), and hence a "tendency toward not-thinking and a release from being" (ibid.). In this, it distinguishes itself from the philosophical and aesthetic tradition, which held fastidiously to a principle of formation, whether it be of transcendental ideas, sublime images, or homogeneous narrative.
Following his first chapter on Aristotle, in which he draws out the ontological implications of not-always-thinking for a theory of primal distraction from the aporias of Aristotelian nous, North shifts from a metaphysical to an empirical and descriptive account of distraction with La Bruyère's figure of "the distracted one" (le distrait). In contrast to Aristotle, La Bruyère is less interested in the possible transcendent and universal etiology of distraction than in presenting a detailed image of it, one which in part reflects the changing social, economic, and theological circumstances of the Grand Siècle, with its "almost hopeless mixture of dispositions, mutations, degenerations, types, and half-types against which the eighteenth century would mobilize its army of analytic classifications" (52). The importance of La Bruyère's portrait of the distracted one for North's study are manifold, but what unites the various moments of his analysis lies in the heterogeneity and profound ambiguity of le distrait: as an "untimely" figure belonging neither fully to the present nor the past, and at once both individual and collective by virtue of being a "collection of examples" (71) lacking particularity, the distracted one could hardly be said to be a "type" at all. Rather, as an "aggregate of unthinking acts" (37) and "missteps, mistakes, and stupidities" (71), La Bruyère's le distrait becomes the "face of distraction" par excellence. By relinquishing any claim...